PHILIPPINE NEWS, MANILA – A German couple, kidnapped by Abu Sayyaf gunmen, were handed over to their embassy on Saturday, after the group’s ransom demands appeared to have been paid.
At dawn on Saturday, a private plane flew Stefan Okonek and his partner Henrike Dielen to Manila from Zamboanga, after the couple were released late on Friday night.
“With the release from captivity of the two German nationals, our security forces will continue efforts to stem the tide of criminality perpetrated by bandit elements,” said Herminio Coloma, a spokesman for President Benigno Aquino.
The couple were released just ahead of the kidnappers deadline for the German government to pay a $5.6 million (P250 million) ransom and withdraw support for US airstrikes against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
Okonek, in his 70s and Dielen, in her 50s, were snatched from their yacht on April 25 whilst sailing near the island of Palawan. It’s believed the couple were held on the remote southern island of Jolo, whilst the kidnappers organised press and social media campaigns to threaten the hostages’ lives and persuade Berlin to pay their demands.
In a series of calls to local radio stations and internet video posts, the couple were forced to beg for their lives. In one video, Okonek was forced to sit in what he was told was his grave, whilst gunmen threatened to shoot him. In another he was beaten repeatedly around the head as he screamed in pain.
The kidnappers claimed they collected “no more, no less” than their ransom demand, though Filipino officials said they could not confirm if any ransom had been paid.
Although the Abu Sayyaf group was thought to be in decline, buoyed by the activities of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, to which they claim allegiance, their activity has recently increased.
Labelled a terrorist group by the United States and Philippines, Abu Sayyaf was founded in the 1990s by Islamic Preacher, Abdurajak Janjalani and with financial backing from Al-Qaeda.
In July, a YouTube video showed one of the Abu Sayyaf’s leaders pledging allegiance to the Islamic State, however Philippine authorities say the group is mainly a criminal gang interested in kidnappings-for-ransom and other illegal activities.
There are still 11 to 15 hostages thought to be in the hands of Abu Sayyaf, some of which have been held captive for up to four years.
Chief of the Philippine military’s Western Mindanao Command, Lieutenant General Rustico Guerrero, said they were working to recover 11 remaining hostages.
Guerrero said the military were determined to secure the freedom of European birdwatchers Ewold Horn, a Dutchman and Lorenzo Vinciguerra, a Swiss national, seized in Feb 2012, Malaysian marine police officer Kons Zakiah Aleip, who was abducted in July 2014 and Chan Sai Chuin, 32, a Chinese national kidnapped in June, as well as seven Filipino victims.
“We conduct continuous security operations together with the Phillipines National Police and there has been no let-up,” said Guerrero, adding the captives were being held by various Abu Sayyaf factions.
However, the Sulu-based group Bangsamoro Against Kidnapping and Other Crimes (Bassakao) said the actual number of Abu Sayyaf hostages was at least15.
Bassakao organiser, Dr Raden Ikbala said they had been trying to learn the condition of the victims, but military activity in the area had made this difficult.
The Bassakao figure includes Japanese treasure hunter Toshio Ito, who was abducted on July 16, 2010. However, his case was dropped from the military’s list as nothing has been heard of him since 2012.